How do you cope with envy? What is it like to feel that somebody else is doing “better” than you? Wikipedia defines it like this: “Envy is best defined as a resentful emotion that “occurs when a person lacks another’s (perceived) superior quality, achievement or possession and wishes that the other lacked it.”.
Envy can be really distressing and consuming; it points at “taking”, possessing, “grabbing”, yearning for an object/personal quality/achievement that is felt as eluding or denied to the self.
It can be felt towards normal people, and especially towards those who are shining for their popularity, success, good looks etc, even if we don’y know them personally we become very interested in them as if they really mattered to us or us to them.
People on TV, politicians and actors are usual targets for envy and may be representing something we want for ourselves.
Whether the target of our envy is close, real or not, the feeling is real and intense.
Being envious is very painful and toxic for the self esteem. We feel “less than” and the intensity feeling can be such that obscures other feelings about ourselves: our good qualities, our gifts and achievements.
“Envy is the art of counting the other’s fellow blessings instead of your own” (Harold Coffin)
In the photo: Sophia Loren, checking out her friend’s ‘front assets’. Did she need to do that?Sophia was at that time considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Being on the receiving end of envy is also not great. Envious people can become attacking or demeaning of us in order to feel less distressed. Whether or not those people know us, we become very important to them as if they did, and the attacks can be quite vicious and personal.
I think that envy can also be used passive-aggressively in order to hurt others. In fact “outdoing” them, copying them, showing off to them is often a sign of aggression because we know that envy hurts and we want to hurt that person indirectly.
“If malice or envy were tangible and had a shape, it would be the shape of a boomerang.” (Charley Reese)
In envy there are perhaps two components: one is the desire to be “like” the other person, and at some level to connect with them. This is a kind of idealising tendency, that is sometimes called “twinning” (wanting to be like a twin, a copy of the other person).
“Fools may our scorn, not envy, raise. For envy is a kind of praise. “(John Gay)
The second component of envy is the projection: we project onto the other person parts of us, or aspirations, which is felt as if it was stolen from us, so we attack them. Love and hate are both very strong and the resulting ambivalence is keeping us engaged in that relationship or situation and it makes it difficult to step back and let it go or focus only on ourselves.
Envy is felt by everyone; it is a normal emotion (or a combination of emotions) that all of us feel and tolerate from time to time. It is troublesome because it can be destructive, and as such society has often either condemned it – in some religions is considered a sin – or celebrated it in disguise as high level of ambition or competitiveness that is often found in some environments, for example business or politics.
We feel envy as children too. In fact how we are allowed to feel and express envy, to tolerate and resolve it in childhood is very important as these skills will stay with us all the rest of our lives. Often the envy is not allowed much in families, either because the parents find it difficult, and because it can be greatly fuelled by the presence of siblings. If the envy is only partially or completely discouraged, we may find that children become confused and either don’t know how to deal with the emotions or they repress it so it becomes unconscious. In adult this can show as low self esteem, litigiousness, passive-aggressiveness and in difficulties with relationships, for example stealing boyfriends/girlfriends, stepping on other people’s turf and so on.
What’s the difference between envy and jealousy? In my opinion, envy is a 2-people problem: we are envious of another person, her qualities or possessions, so it is between us and them.
In jealousy, it is a 3-people problem: we are jealous of a relationship that other 2 people have; so it is between us and a “couple”. The “couple” doesn’t need to be a sexual couple, it could be mother and child, boss and employee, etc. What we are craving there is the quality of relationship that those 2 people have, and from which we are excluded. In psychological terms this can be described as an oedipal problem.
Envy and Jealousy can therefore coexist and we could be envious of another person (for their beauty, intelligence, lifestyle) AND jealous of their relationships (with partner, boss, friends), which makes it quite difficult for us!!
Envy we feel while growing up might stay with us a long time, and the more in us is mixed with other feelings the more we are likely to get stuck in it. Siblings and/or admired and envied peers may become a permanent fixture in our lives. Sometimes this is transferred on other people too later on, when those exhibit qualities or achievements similar to those of the people we envied a long time ago.
Envy & competition. In everyday life we have many, many opportunities to feel envious, especially when we are in environments or situations where there is a lot of competition. The high level of competitiveness is very stressful and objects, achievements and results soon become mixed up with self worth and the image we want to portray. Competitive environments allow a lot of aggression to be expressed directly or indirectly and trigger the envy even in those who are not very envious in other situations.
Can envy become a problem? Yes, sometimes it is can be as troublesome as anger issues, and in fact in some cases what seems an anger problem is in actual fact an envy problem.
For the seriously envious, the continuous comparing with others and the intensity of feelings can erode the self esteem; people can become very distressed and shameful about this feeling and they may find difficult to talk about for fear of being judged.
They can experience high anxiety about being “found out”, feel bad about themselves, more irritable or depressed. It can affect relationships with others as the person may feel suspicious, resentful or demeaning of who they envy. Sometimes it becomes a sort of obsession that fuels behaviours like internet/social media stalking, “stealing” partners or business opportunities, which do not seem to bring any peace or respite.
For the envied it is quite stressful too being at the receiving end of the negativity; it can be confusing, frightening or irritating and sometimes also cause of anxiety and low self esteem.
Envy that is not acknowledged or processed can go unnoticed but still motivate our behaviour outside our awareness. It may go in the “shadow” of the personality.
When envy bites hard or too long, what can we do? What can help is finding out what is making us envious; where it comes from; develop compassion and understanding towards ourselves and what this does to others etc.
Envy cannot be eliminated as it is part of life but can certainly become less of an issue when integrated and learned to address its causes in healthy ways.
Rita Harvey MBACP